The Hero’s Journey in “Gladiator”

Emphasizing brawn over brain and spectacle over intimacy, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator nevertheless is an impressive accomplishment in its re-creation not only of the golden age of the Roman Empire but of the unspeakable brutality with which one of the world’s greatest states conducted its business.

Following up on his recent best actor Oscar nomination, Russell Crowe solidly anchors this epic-scale gladiator movie — the first in nearly four decades — by using his burly frame and expressive face to give dimension to what might otherwise have been comic book heroics. A guy’s guy, but one who should have considerable appeal for women as well, Crowe will be a major factor in the worldwide success of this ultimate jock movie from DreamWorks and Universal.

Like the Caesars, who commanded vast armies and ruled much of the world’s population, Scott marshals the resources of a cast of thousands, colossal sets, exquisite costuming and graphic imaging to paint in the details of a credible though sometimes geographically confusing depiction of the Roman Empire.

Although the physically daunting production at times threatens to overwhelm the implausible tale, Crowe and several actors, most notably the late Oliver Reed, Connie Nielsen and, in an extended cameo, Richard Harris, never let the human dimension get lost.

The screenplay, originally written by David Franzoni (Amistad) with John Logan and William Nicholson apparently doing rewrites, formulates a startlingly simplistic good-vs.-evil scenario. It also asks an audience to swallow the idea of Rome’s greatest general becoming almost overnight a slave and then a gladiator. Then again, in the second century of the Christian era, the Empire was a pretty crazy place and anything could, and did, happen.

The movie opens as Crowe’s General Maximus undertakes the final battle of his three-year campaign in the northernmost reaches of the Empire. “At my signal,” he tells his aides, “unleash hell.” And hell it is. Scott treats us to a striking display of warfare A.D. 180-style. The ancient killing machines swing into action: Thousands of spears and flaming arrows pierce the air, catapults fling fiery clay pots against flammable trees, hand-to-hand combat entails broadswords and axes, and a flanking maneuver led by Maximus himself sees the cavalry slip behind enemy lines to finish off the outmanned resistance.

In this early sequence, Scott signals the scope and scale of his ambitions, painting a broad canvas of blood, valor and horror, where action is slowed down to create a blur of shade and color, an impressionistic chiaroscuro of maniacal madness.

As the smoke of battle drafts away, the movie’s main characters are revealed. The dying emperor himself is unaccountably on hand, the white-manned Marcus Aurelius. Waxing philosophical about a rule where virtue and wisdom is overshadowed by constant warfare, Marcus lays bare his unhappiness about the corruption of Rome.

He informs Maximus, his wastrel though ambitious son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and his much wiser daughter Lucilla (Nielsen) of his intention to pass over his son to appoint Maximus as Protector of Rome. However, Commodus makes certain the old man dies before those wishes are widely known. He declares himself emperor before the body is cold, then orders Maximus’ immediate death.

Escaping execution, Maximus makes his way seemingly overnight — locations are vague throughout — to his home, where he finds his wife and son hideously crucified. Gravely injured himself, he falls into the hands of a slaver, Proximo (Reed), who turns him into a gladiator along with fellow slave Juba (Djimon Hounsou).

Meanwhile, Commodus, implausibly unaware of Maximus’ survival, arrives in triumph back in Rome where he indulges himself in all kinds of villainies. To take the populace’s minds off his evil designs, he restores the gladiator games to the capital.

Soon enough, Maximus, who has covered himself in glory in games in the provinces, gets called up to the big leagues. Arriving in Rome, he aims to achieve greatness in the arena, win the hearts of Romans and challenge the emperor himself, the man he has vowed to destroy.

Neither Scott nor his writers seem the least put off by the flatness of this moral universe. Crowe’s warrior embodies all that is good in the Roman ideal — where strength is found in honor and one remains loyal to a higher morality than political power. Phoenix’s tyrant, on the other hand, is a sniveling and indolent punk, snarling his every line of dialogue and incapable of even the slightest glimpse of anything reflecting his noble lineage.

To drive home Commodus’ tyranny, his entry into Rome is accompanied by monochromatic shots of the pageantry that ape those in Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda classic Triumph of the Will. Scott thereby ensures his audience always understands where the moral center lies. But some of the fun drains out of the movie when its makers resort to caricature over character.

Nielsen’s Lucilla is more confusing than complex, seemingly allied with her brother but emotionally pulled toward Maximus, with whom she once had a romantic dalliance that left them both bitter. But Nielsen delivers a character whose contradictions stem from not only divided loyalties but a moral inheritance from her father.

Reed’s ex-gladiator-turned-slaver emerges as one of the film’s more interesting figures, a man of practicality who, as practical men are often wont to do, proves to be a man of more honor than one might initially think.

But it is Crowe who dominates, a sexy and decisive man of action, bloodied but never bowed. Crowe is one of the most watchable of movie actors.

The movie is impressive in scope, but like the gladiator games themselves, designed for mindless spectacle to please the multitudes